Prairie State Group’s FIRST Company Certification Demonstrates Importance of Capable, Knowledgeable Workforce

A printer has a lot of moving parts, both figuratively and literally. Numerous pieces of highly functional, very expensive machinery. Materials, from substrates and inks, to parts and completed orders, constantly going in and out its doors. Around the clock shifts, balance sheets, demanding customers, quality control—the list is endless.

At FTA member Prairie State Group, there is one part more valuable than any of these, one worth substantially more than any seven figure press.

“We are always trying to invest in our most important asset—our associates!” exclaims Executive VP of Operations and Principal Dan Doherty. “You can have the best equipment, but if your associates don’t understand the process, then you are finished before you start.”

After spending several years investing in its employees through Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances (FIRST) Certifications, the company took the leap to achieve FIRST Company Certification. The culmination of a journey that began more than three years ago, it has brought increased process control and better product delivered to clients, and a stronger, more knowledgeable workforce, that appreciates the investment Prairie State Group has made.

Here, FLEXO Magazine speaks with Doherty, who is a current member of FTA’s Board of Directors and its Foundation’s Board of Trustees, as well as employees certified in each of the three FIRST disciplines:

FIRST Company Certification

Dan Doherty Prairie State Group FIRST Company Certification
Dan Doherty

FLEXO Magazine: Achieving FIRST Company Certification is the end of a long road. How does it feel to have reached it?

Dan Doherty: It is a great accomplishment. Our entire team has been focused since June 2012. Not only did it involve our plant personnel and managers, but it touched on all departments. Our goal is to have all employees participate in the training at some level by 2016.

FLEXO: Take us through PSG’s timeline to reaching FIRST Company Certification: When did you achieve each of the other requisite certifications?

Doherty: Our team has been following FIRST practices for the last eight years or so, but we embarked on the goal of training all operators in early 2012. We originally focused on Prepress and Operator Certifications, then rolled in Implementation Specialist for floor supervisors and managers. During this time, we had individuals from all departments involved, from executive level to shipping. As is required of FIRST Company Certification, employees attained each of the prerequisite FIRST Certifications:

  • 40 percent of pressroom staff must be FIRST Press Operator Certified: Achieved in November, 2013
  • 40 percent of prepress staff must be FIRST Prepress Operator Certified: Achieved in May, 2013
  • 40 percent of management/non production staff must be FIRST Implementation Specialist Certified: Achieved in May, 2014

FLEXO: Why did PSG initially seek out FIRST Company Certification? What made the company decide that printing to the numbers and statistical process control were essential?

Prairie State Group FIRST Company CertificationDoherty: Printing has become more of a science than it was just a few years ago. There needs to be an understanding of all the variables and the desire to control what you can. We needed a tool to help us understand the processes’ variables, and wanted to measure and document our capability. Once we understood the relationship of all variables we needed to control them. FIRST Company Certification helped us get there.

FLEXO: Was the decision to ultimately achieve FIRST Company Certification, and therefore the other certifications, a means to an end, or did you set out to achieve a single certification and later decided to build on that?

Doherty: Our initial goal was to have the best workforce in the industry. We are always trying to invest in our most important asset—our associates! You can have the best equipment, but if your associates don’t understand the process then you are finished before you start. As we progressed in our training, it became apparent the FIRST Company Certification was within our grasp, and so we began to look at the long-term advantage of Company Certification. We were investing heavily with training our people, but we needed to make sure we didn’t lose the benefits. Certification offered a way to implement, monitor and ensure the long-term success.

FLEXO: What was the employee response to FIRST Company Certification?

Doherty: Historically, we have been a relatively progressive company when it comes to embracing certifications and new initiatives (SQF LEVEL 3, GMI, Lean training, etc.). Our employees have always been open to change and look forward to new opportunities to learn, so it was met with a good amount of acceptance. Many of our associates have not had formal training that requires multiple tests and online review, but after a while they became more comfortable. They helped each other, as did support from management and FTA staff.

FLEXO: Were employees permitted to go through the training on company time/computers?Prairie State Group FIRST Company Certification

Doherty: Yes. We left it up to them. Many wanted to work from home, but we offered time during or after shifts to get the training complete. It required monitoring and oversight, but our HR staff sent out reminders and helped with the coordination for all three shifts.

FLEXO: How does FIRST Company Certification change day to day activities at PSG?

Doherty: It tightens up our processes. It allows us to see when and where something is going “out of control.” The inverse is that we feel comfortable that our processes are reliable, predictable and repeatable.

FLEXO: Do employees notice a change in what’s coming off press?

Doherty: Yes, our progress has been gradual over the years since we began our journey. The more the associates are involved and the more they practice the techniques, the more understanding of the process they have. They see the benefits of utilizing the tools and documentation. It makes their daily lives easier and removes a lot of frustration. The overall quality level has risen, and it shows by less nonconforming product and a happier client base.

FLEXO: How are Prairie State Group’s various Certifications integrated into promotion materials and conveyed to clients?

Doherty: PSG has always shared its internal training methods and best practices with clients. This program offers a higher level of confidence for our current and prospective clients. It brings in a third party (FTA) that will help us monitor our processes and we can now show our customers the proof that we are always looking to maintain and improve quality.

FLEXO: What does FIRST Company Certification add in terms of attracting new clients? How does it strengthen your marketing abilities?

Doherty: It’s too soon to tell and measure. Presented correctly, many of the clients are appreciative of any training that affects the quality of their product. There aren’t many options that can be marketed as well as the FIRST Company Certification program. It shows structure, a high level of detail and industry acceptance. These are critical when discussing FIRST benefits with clients.

Prairie State Group FIRST Company Certification

FLEXO: Before receiving FIRST Company Certification, Prairie State Group underwent an on-site audit. How did that go?

Doherty: The preparation was a learning experience. Our team had questions that needed to be answered. We reached out to other FIRST Company Certified printers and they were extremely helpful. The audit team and FTA staff were available to help guide us and offer insight into the process and expectations prior to the audit. The audit itself was verification of the processes we had in place but also pointed out some gaps in our procedures. They worked with us to address those gaps and once we did that, our process controls became stronger than they were prior to the audit.

FLEXO: What would you say to a printer considering any FIRST Certifications?

Doherty: In a competitive environment, we all need to be doing whatever we can to maintain our share of the market and grow. Equipment and technology are necessary, but a well trained workforce is the one that executes your plan. They help you succeed when they are part of the big picture.

FLEXO: How large is PSG? Number of locations/presses/employees/shifts?

Doherty: We have one location in Franklin Park, IL with six presses. Prairie State Group has 95 employees and runs three shifts a day. We also handle digital plate making in house.

FLEXO: In what market segment does the company do business?

Doherty: Prairie State Group has a diverse product line offering. We run pressure sensitive labels as well as a wide range of flexible packaging. Our diversity offered challenges that required us to get a handle on multiple workflows, product lines, material inks, etc., and FIRST Company Certification helped us streamline our processes and made them more reliable.